IT’S still 7 minutes before the start of his shift at 2 pm when Rudra Pratap Roy arrives. Dressed in his uniform of white shirt and black trousers, he clips on his nameplate, shakes hands with the man whom he is relieving, and takes his chair in the corner of a round-shaped room. For the next eight hours, Roy will barely stir from his seat — while managing the movement of at least 17 lakh people and 700 trains daily at one of India’s busiest railway stations. Roy, 34, is one of the staffers at the Indication and Announcement Desk at the Sealdah Railway Station in Kolkata.
Recently, the role of announcement staffers such as him was questioned by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee after two people were killed and 12 injured in a stampede on a foot overbridge at the Station in Howrah. The CM said people had died due to “wrong announcement” regarding two trains arriving one after another, causing passengers to rush between platforms.
The room Roy occupies is called the RRI (Route Relay Interlocking) Cabin, which has tilted glass windows giving a panoramic view of the station and its tracks. ‘Cabin Master’ Salil Aditya, the seniormost official in the room, sits in the middle. The room also holds an operator manning the railway display panel boards, a General Assistant to ensure coordination between Roy and the operator, and two pointmen to deliver memos to train drivers.
Minutes after Roy has taken over the shift, Aditya tells him to prepare for announcement regarding the Hasnabad-Agarpara train. Roy takes down the name of the train, its arrival time, and the platform on which it will come, in a logbook. He then feeds the information into his desktop computer and clicks the ‘send’ button. Seconds later, the information is visible on display boards across the station. The announcement reading aloud the same details plays automatically, Roy explains, saying gone are the days when the entire process, including the announcements, was manual.
Now the Railways mostly has a recorded voice for announcements. Apart from train arrivals and delays, these can be general ones like alerting passengers to keep an eye on their language.
Roy has heard of what happened at the Santragachi Railway Station. Clarifying that he himself has never faced such a situation, he points out that often people ignore the announcements or take unnecessary risks. He points through the glass windows to Platform No. 5, where a number of people are standing right on the tracks, so as to hop onto a local train arriving on the next track.
“We keep playing announcements to stop people from trespassing onto the tracks, but no one pays heed. In India, people easily filter information as per their convenience,” Roy says.
However, he reiterates, there is little possibility of stampedes arising out of platforms being changed at the last moment. “Proper gap is maintained between announcements.”
Incidents such as Santragachi’s also show that, apart from “a sweet voice”, the announcer needs “presence of mind, 100 per cent alertness and the ability to plan simultaneously”, Roy says. He mentions the Central Railways announcer who had saved many lives at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus during the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
Pointing to an old-fashioned, rotary-dial phone and speakers on his desk, Roy says these equipment are still used in case of an emergency. However, for Roy, the greatest safeguard for the RRI Cabin staff are the glass windows. “We believe that if we can see the trains, we can control them.”
While most of the manual announcements are made only in Bengali, those regarding important trains are also made in Hindi and English. Officials say different railway stations have different decibel levels, which also keep changing depending on the hour of the announcement. “During peak hours, there is so much noise that volume is usually kept high,” Roy says.
Officially, Roy, who joined the Railways inspired by his father, holds the post of ticket examiner in the Eastern Railways, and by rotation, he does that work apart from being deputed to the RRI Cabin depending on manpower availability.
His family, including his wife and a newborn child, continues to stay with his parents in Asansol. Roy, who stays with a friend at Dum Dum in a rented accommodation, says he doesn’t want to bring them due to the hours he keeps.
Cabin Master Aditya intervenes to instruct Roy to initiate the announcement regarding the Sealdah-Gobadanga local, arriving on Platform No. 9. This is the busiest part of the evening, Aditya says, with several “important trains” arriving between 4 pm and 5.45 pm, including the Rajdhani Express, Gangasagar Express, Lalgola Fast Passenger train and a few locals.
Laughs Roy, “Our cabin is no less than an Air Traffic Control room, but less glamorous. We have no break time, we keep our eyes, mind and ears open. In our eight-hour duty, we don’t even touch our mobile phones. I go to the toilet when I am playing stock messages like ‘Welcome to Sealdah Station’.”
Roy lets you in on another secret. While, at times, he makes announcements, he says he has never heard his own voice over the loudspeakers. But his heart soars everytime a friend who is passing by spots it. “That makes me content.”
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